Football legend states that Aiden McGeady was once bored, sick of waiting around for his match to start, so to occupy his energetic mind he began to play keepy-uppy with a tennis ball.
He was in the Highlands playing a tournament with his local team Queen’s Park, and by a stroke of well-timed fortune his outlandish and mercurial skill with a simple tennis ball entranced and hypnotised an excited passer-by.
The man in question was Kenny McDowall, the then Head of Youth Development at Celtic.
Within a short space of time, word had spread through all corners of Tartan football about a ridiculously skillful kid from the South of Glasgow, to such an extent that supporters from all Glaswegian territories would travel to catch a glimpse of the apparent new wonder-kid of Scottish football. He, in turn, would thank them by displaying how easy it was for him to dribble, glide and drift past older lads with much more strength and experience than him.
Arsene Wenger invited him to train at Arsenal 13 times and Sir Alex Ferguson would phone his house to ask about his progress, with an eye on convincing his parents that a move to Manchester would be beneficial. But, to Kenny McDowall’s satisfaction, the Celtic loving McGeady preferred to stay in Glasgow.
“You only discover one Aiden McGeady in a generation,” said McDowall as his protégé was establishing himself as the most exciting prospect at Celtic for longer than anyone cared to remember. That was then. Many moons ago.
This was Roy Keane about the same player in 2016 after a disappointing showing for Ireland against the physical Belarus.
My reaction to Aiden’s performance?
He can do a lot better but…that’s the story of Aiden’s whole career.
Ooh. That stings. Weirdly, Keane’s assessment didn’t shock anyone in Ireland - it succinctly summed up their own feelings. They have watched this player win a fabulous amount of caps, and yet still cannot make up their mind about him.
Well. Some people have - former player turned pundit Eamon Dumphy was pretty brutal in his assessment.
I just can’t see why there is any fuss over a winger who doesn’t score goals, provide any assists and finds it difficult to beat a man, which is supposed to be his forte.
Yet for many Sunderland fans, just like the supporters who follow the Irish, our feelings for McGeady are also mixed. We have seen touches of genius - of that there is no doubt. Last season there were moments where his ability to find something special, pulled off results we would never have otherwise secured. Because of his raw and breathless natural ability to perform the occasional magic, McGeady was my little boy’s favourite player last season - although it’s fair to say the competition was drastically slim.
The truth of the matter, for me, was that he didn’t perform magic nearly often enough. Not that the responsibility to save Sunderland from relegation was his and his alone - far from it. But, despite the cracking passes and the curling screamers he was capable of producing, he most definitely could have done more.
I’m not suggesting he’s a bad player, or that he does not contain magic in his feet - quite the opposite. He’s tremendously talented, yet true talent is not just about what lies within an individual, but what the measurable impact of that God given gift is.
Last season it wasn’t quite enough.
This season is another interesting tale and simply adds to the overall conundrum of the unpredictable Aiden McGeady. With January around the corner, there is a very realistic and sensible question to ask: is McGeady and his output (along with his proportionately massive salary) worth the gamble of continued association with Jack Ross and his unifying squad?
Should he stay or should he go?
At nearly every club he’s been at, befuddled managers and fans have never quite solved this quandary - albeit at Preston he enjoyed his most impressive stint and quite rightly still retains their respect and adoration.
But at Sunderland we are not quite so sure. Of course from very recent history, his performances and goals suggest we’d be mad to let him leave, unless there is a very sensible economic reason to do so. However, in terms of what he can potentially do on a football pitch, there is every reason to retain his enigmatic services.
Yet, Plymouth away was in many ways was a microcosm of his overall stint at Sunderland. He appeared lethargic and off the pace in the first half. Uninterested and ineffective. Jack Ross would have been well within his rights to drag him off at half time.
In the second half he produced the kind of irrefutable skill that can change the outcome and result of a hard fought game.
So, I’m torn. I know he can produce the brand of improvised, natural ability that is highly unusual and rare in the jungle of League One - the kind of magic that can turn a loss into a draw or a draw into a win. He’s got it. We all know he’s got it. But, has he got enough and does he produce it often enough?
At his age and with his experience I can see the outside logic of keeping a player who should be a leader around the camp. But, as an outsider I’m uncertain of just how much that logic is true - that just because of age and length of career you automatically merge into a worthy Churchillian style leader.
Leadership is about character every bit as it is about ability and over time his character has not turned his unbelievable talent into the sustainable ability that was predicted for him as a youngster. But, I don’t know the man. He might be a mix of King Richard the Lion Heart and Ghandi for all I know. So, the potential of mature leadership may be a reasonable contributory factor in keeping him at the club.
Or, if he’s not a leader, will his shadow loom over our youngsters like a curse?
He’s also on a comparatively large and healthy salary, likely five or six times that of an average League one player. Would it make sense to sacrifice what he might be able to produce on a given moment, to bolster our squad with younger and more diligent players, who understand the peaks and troughs of League 1?
The possibility being, they are unlikely to possess his raw power to produce match-winning moments in the same manner as McGeady.
I suppose for Sunderland supporters like me, McGeady remains what he has largely been for the majority of his career - an enigma, inside a riddle, wrapped in a mystery.
As a consequence of the mystique that surrounds him, I’m uncertain of what his short-term Sunderland future will hold. Will it be magical or disappointing? I know the answer Roy Keane would give, but this is Jack Ross’ call now and I’m certain he’ll make the right one for both McGeady and the club.